Something must have been in the air during the summer of 1946, because in the span of about ten days, two of Europe's most important film festivals were born, and a third was re-launched. On august 23rd, some 60 years ago, the Locarno International Film Festival opened with a screening of Giacomo Gentilomo's "O Sole Mio" on the lawn of the Grand Hotel. In the coming days, the Venice Film Festival was reborn, followed by the debut of the Cannes Film Festival (technically founded in 1939 on the eve of WWII.)
The 1946 edition of the Locarno festival featured 15 films, four of which were Italian, six of which were Hollywood pictures. This year's "60th birthday" edition of the fest offers nearly 80 feature films, although that's far less than last year--part of an effort to streamline the programming and focus on "quality and clarity" in the various sections. The end result is a challenging and diverse program featuring 20 world premieres from 30 countries.
The festival kicked off on August 1st with the world premiere of Fumihiko Sori's "Vexille," a futuristic Japanimation adventure that takes place in 2077 in an increasingly isolated Japan. The screening was followed by an homage to the recently deceased Ingmar Bergman with a projection of his last film, "Saraband." The double-feature event took place in the Piazza Grande, the festival's legendary outdoor venue, which offers one of the largest open-air screens in the world--while boasting superior projection and sound quality in both analog and HD formats.
The only drawback of the Piazza Grande is when it begins to rain in the middle of a screening, as it did during the world premiere of Jacob Berger's "1 Journee," but audience members (many prepared with umbrellas) took it in stride. Perhaps it was appropriate weather for a film that tells the story of Serge, a radio journalist who is involved in a hit-and-run accident in the pouring rain, as he leaves the house of his mistress just before sunrise. The 24-hour period that follows is driven by Serge's cowardice and fear, ultimately destroying what little was left of his family life.
In the International Competition section, the World Premiere of Jim Threapleton's "Extraordinary Rendition" struck an equally personal yet far more political note. As the director warned audiences in advance, the film may be fiction, but it addresses a frightening reality that some Muslims face in a post 9/11 world. As the story unfolds in a somewhat documentary style, a teacher is kidnapped on a London street and taken to the airport. Flown to an unknown country and isolated with no trial or explanation, he is brutally tortured and eventually forced to sign documents admitting he helped fund a terrorist organization. The title of the film refers to the name of the real-life CIA program that fosters the illegal transfer of suspected terrorists to countries that allow torture.
Somehow, for 60 years, this thriving film festival in the mountains of Switzerland has stayed a festival and nothing more. There are no Hollywood agents on cell phones interrupting screenings, no ultra-exclusive parties on yachts, and no senseless fawning over celebrities. There are certainly plenty of global media folks in attendance, but like the rest of the public, they seem primarily interested in watching and discussing films--while perhaps discovering a few surprises along the way.
[EDITOR's NOTE: Jonny Leahan is on the scene in Locarno and will file another report from the festival later this weekend.]